International Programming Needs Greater Support

 The last decade has seen the population of international students attending Oberlin nearly double, stabilizing at an average of 11 percent per year. The profile of the class of 2022 includes 13 percent international students from 35 different countries. However, despite this population growth, resources for international students on this campus seem to remain relatively stagnant. 

While the current resources available to international students, primarily through the International Student Resource Center and student groups, deserve credit for the phenomenal support they provide, they are spread thin relative to the size of the community they serve. The ISRC has a single full-time staff member, and while Assistant Dean of Students Josh Whitson is indisputably a gem, it is worrisome that he single-handedly manages all international student affairs, from orientation week to post-Oberlin employment paperwork known as optional practical training, which allows international students to work in the United States for one to three years after graduation. 

This means that a single College employee is not only the sole resource available to international students on campus for four years, but also that this one person is tasked with supporting students with immigration paperwork up to three years after they are no longer at Oberlin. 

Organizations such as the International Student Organization, other cultural clubs, and courses in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program must certainly be recognized for their efforts in creating support and a strong community for international students as well. However, there is enormous potential for improvement in institutional resources for international students — most importantly increasing full-time staff in the ISRC. 

It is imperative to note that the dearth in support is not limited to resources available to international students. The problem also lies in the lack of educational opportunities provided to American students at Oberlin regarding cultural sensitivity. There seems to be a wide gap in knowledge amongst American students about how to be culturally sensitive — both when interacting with international students on campus and when traveling abroad. 

This problem is not just particular to American students at Oberlin, however. Intercultural incompetence is a national problem in the U.S. Americans are notorious for their limited knowledge and understanding of how other countries, especially developing countries, operate.

Oberlin offers students several opportunities to study abroad, whether it is for a semester, a year, or through postgraduate programs like Shansi or Watson fellowships. While the longer term programs do offer some support in terms of navigating a foreign language, there is not enough recognition of ideas such as American privilege, colonial histories, governmental differences, and other cultural differences students are bound to encounter. 

Treating local private spaces in other countries like tourist spots, expressing resentment toward the lack of infrastructure or amenities in third world countries, and complaining about the “backward” ideals of developing nations are just some examples of ignorant behavior exhibited by Americans while traveling abroad. This ignorance stems from a lack of knowledge of the centuries of culture, struggle, and effort involved in building these countries. This gap in knowledge results in a general populace that is unprepared to respectfully navigate other countries.

Oberlin’s campus is also a site of disrespectful, unpleasant interactions between American and international students. Comments regarding international students’ language proficiency or generalizations based on incomplete facts about other countries severely limit the relationships formed between the two communities. On an institutional level, academic courses at Oberlin assume international students to possess the same degree of knowledge about American history as American students. Faculty frequently expect international students to contribute to class discussions and include American historical and political narratives in assignments, often in courses without the support of TAs or tutors. With increased support for the ISRC, such academic and psychological chasms between international and American students can be bridged from both ends. 

Simply adding international students, stirring, and then applauding ourselves for our diversity is not enough. Admitting more international students does not make Oberlin’s student body more globally competent on its own. While important, it is just the first step. 

If Oberlin is truly committed to international diversity, it must not only provide its international student body adequate resources to thrive, but also teach its American students how to be respectful, well-informed global citizens.